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Human rights and social justice

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There is a great poverty of vision in tackling the multi-dimensional complexity of current critical issues, observes William S W Lim. We must increase our awareness of exploitative unequal trade arrangements, the ‘profit-first’ orientation of multinational corporations and impending global climate disaster.

Lim Teck Ghee, a well-known social critic and public intellectual, asked me to write a short piece of what I consider to be important over the last few decades in order to share the experience of evolutionary changes and adaptation. I paused for a few days and decided to record my continuous concern and commitments towards rights and justice. Over the years, with deeper understanding of their complexity, the meaning and interpretation of rights and justice have been broadened. We now need to consider economic, social and political rights and their inter-relationship with one another, as well as to expand the scope of social justice to be inclusive of environmental and spatial justice, and to achieve a just balance between individual rights and collective obligations.

The late Soedjatmoko had repeatedly stressed the importance of social justice in many of our informal discussions in the early 1970s. Soedjatmoko was an outstanding intellectual and was Indonesia’s ambassador to the US. At the time, I did not fully comprehend the importance and relevance for developing countries when he talked about basic needs for the poor as an essential package to be included in the human rights agenda. Its importance did not occur to me and many of us — members of the Southeast Asian study group.i (The group was the first transnational Civil Society Organisation (CSO) to bring Southeast Asian intellectuals together to discuss common issues.) Only years later did I realise that because of US objections and the ideological conflicts of the Cold War, human rights as defined by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNHR) (1948)ii has totally omitted issues such as the provision of basic needs of food, shelter, education and health for the poor.

It must not be forgotten that for a nation to get out of the state of poverty, it is a long and painful process. Considerable suffering is inflicted on large numbers of her people. Historically, the broader benefits of human rights for everyone in the West were only achieved with increasing economic prosperity. This prosperity was substantially made possible by slavery and the exploitation of the colonies. In the emerging economies today, where there is an urgent commitment for rapid economic development, a similar process of pain and sacrifices has to take place. This process becomes even more difficult especially without slavery and colonies. Fortunately, the advancement of technology and its flexible adaptability has allowed productivity to improve rapidly resulting in an unprecedented rate of economic growth, as can be witnessed in the emerging economies in the East Asian region as well as India today.

The current dilemma for many countries in Southeast Asia is whether to join the race of rapid growth with major adjustments to present development and cultural policies as in Vietnam, or risk being left behind. Results of the recent general election in Malaysia and Taiwan, both in March 2008, may generate major adjustments in development policies.iii The unexpected success of the opposition in Malaysia may result in major structural changes in development strategy to help the poor across the racial divide, to narrow the income gap and to generate positive response and contribution from the valuable human resources from all communities. Taiwan clearly rejected present confrontational policies and strongly supported closer mutually beneficial relationship with China in order to achieve faster economic growth.

In the coming years, some countries with different political and social systems will succeed. However, they must be assured of their ability to control their own destiny. China has shown that with two to three decades of rapid growth, there is now sufficient financial and human resources enabling the government to officially commit to poverty eradication to provide basic needs for all and to decrease income disparity in cities and between regions as well as to carry out massive infrastructural investments, pollution control and environmental improvements. On the other hand, democratic structures and active grassroots participation in India have a strong built-in mechanism to avoid and moderate excesses. However, policy-makers in India have yet to fully commit to or are financially capable of providing basic needs for all her citizens.

In recent years, the United Nations Development Programme has published Human Development Indicators to include vital statistics such as level of literacy, life expectancy and other social and economic criteria as well as reflecting increasing concerns of minority rights and gender equality. Relatively high rank indexes have been achieved by low-income countries such as Cuba, Vietnam and China.iv For instance, Cuba’s life expectancy index is at 77.7 comparable to US’s at 77.5 (2005 figures). Michael Moore’s film, Sicko, has dramatically demonstrated the inadequacy of the US health delivery system.v Clearly, the provision of basic needs, an essential element of social justice can be effectively implemented even in low-income countries as it depends on strong political commitments, rather than solely on high levels per capita income. It is therefore important to examine the effectiveness of only relying on democratic structures and free elections to provide basic needs for all. Singapore, with one of the highest per capita income in the world and an enormous monetary reserve, has an increasing income gap in recent years. This has resulted in serious financial hardship for a substantial minority (estimated between 15 per cent-30 per cent, variable on the definition of poverty). A new social contract is urgently needed in overcoming the long held obsession against welfarism. I fully support Singapore’s social critic, Chua Beng Huat’s statement that the issue is not affordability but “entirely ideological”vi.

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Serious efforts are now made by many CSOs and international agencies to incorporate elements of basic needs into the human rights agenda. However, in the name of spreading democracy and free elections, serious issues of under-nourishment, poverty and diseases have often been overlooked. Recent examples are strong American support of Pakistan and Myanmar for more democracy and competitive, free and fair elections without pressuring the respective governments enough to deliver affordable basic needs for their population. It is important to note that riots and mass demonstrations in developing economies are mainly caused by unacceptable price increases in basic goods and services, fuels and public transports as well as excessive levels of environmental pollution and forced evictions of squatters, tenants and farmers. Perhaps, the most urgent agenda for Asian countries today should be to provide basic needs and to decrease poverty for all their citizens.

In the 1960s and 1970s, two Southeast Asia countries with strong totalitarian regimes, namely Indonesia and Cambodia respectively carried out horrific massive genocides extending over prolonged periods on their own people. In Indonesia, notwithstanding decades of credible economic growth, brutally suppressed protest and criticism only ended in 1998 after more than thirty years with the end of President Suharto’s autocratic regime.vii In this context, I wish to highlight two recent events. In September 2007, Buddhist monks in Myanmar led a peaceful mass demonstration in Yangon to express the increasing hardship of the common people and to demand more democratic rights and people’s participation. The military regime in Myanmar responded brutally, causing many fatal casualties and followed by numerous arrests and detentions. In November 2007, the Indian minority workers in Malaysia held a sizeable demonstration to protest against their continuous serious economic plight. The ethnic-dominated government in Malaysia acted firmly but without causing any fatal casualty. This was followed by arrests and legal actions taken against selected leaders. The authorities have since made various gestures to address the grievances and political damage. However, critics are unconvinced. Ethnic Indians have clearly expressed their unhappiness by overwhelmingly rejecting their Barisan Nasional leaders during the recent general election. Perhaps, excessive physical force and massive arrests against their own people will not be tolerated now in countries where there are even basic democratic structures, notwithstanding their restricted and distorted applications as in many Southeast Asia countries today. We must remember that this had not prevented the colonial West from resorting to brutal suppression in their colonies. Numerous proxy-wars against the ‘others’ still continue today to protect the commercial interest of big businesses. Presently, Israel’s violent inhumane treatment against Palestinians is yet unabated.

Since the early decades after WWII, capitalist economic strategy and globalisation strongly associated with universalism of cultures and values were based essentially on prevalent western modernist practices. Political systems with institutions such as elections, a free press and media as well as freedom of speech and individual and property rights are thus fervently promoted and constructed as being universally applicable. This universalism is inclusive from modernity, human rights and urban development to the total range of cultural elements from arts and architecture to lifestyle and entertainment. Since the 1970s, serious challenges shook the values of western hierarchical establishments including issues such as race, sex and gender equality. New radical pluralistic social and cultural theories everywhere, now known as Cultural Studies, have continued to expand and generate much intellectual debate, excitement and uncertainties. With the rapid development of information communications technology (ICT), this inter-disciplinary new knowledge is now widely disseminated and supported by CSO s and individuals everywhere outside the academic establishments. Our concept of human rights must now embrace this new dynamic element of cultural rights. In the meantime, concepts of globalisation and global cities, as discussed by Saskia Sassen and other global theorists, have since accepted the essentiality to firmly anchor their credibility within local/national elements and their peculiarities. It is in the challenging current context of incredible interlacing complexity of changing values, challenging globality and increasing income disparity between local/national differences and global commonality that I wish to conclude this discourse by analysing three controversial and vital issues of social justice. They are: – (1) Globalisation and Inequality; (2) Universal rights to drugs and knowledge; (3) Land as a vital resource

1) Globalisation and inequality

Neo-liberal globalisation is a complex of ideas and policies dedicated to the promotion of capitalism and free trade towards an integrated world market. With the full support of the US, neo-liberal globalisation has now emerged as a Western-dominated concept of monopoly capitalism. The fact that they often encompass ruthless foreign exploitation and an unsustainable widening of the difference between the privileged rich and the growing underclass is ignored. In the last two decades, the rich have become substantially richer and the income gap between the rich and the poor has widened both within and between countries.

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In recent years, the present concept of capitalistic globalisation has encountered increasing public contention, controversy and contesting polarities. The protest at the 1999 WTO Ministerial Conference in Seattle is among the first of many that demonstrate the massive public outcry against inequalities and exploitation. It is now recognised that the widespread income gap between the rich and the poor generated by globalisation is not inevitable.

The realisation of continuous high rates of growth in a capitalist system of globalisation, together with broad social-minded community objectives of justice, income equity and environmental sustainability is a tough road to travel. Each country has to find its own solution. The four tiger economies — Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan — have shown that they have achieved in their own different ways stable and developed status, but they now urgently need to adopt a new development strategy of ecological and environmental sustainability as well as a radical new social contract in order to minimise the increasing income disparity and its serious negative impact on their low-income citizens. A Chinese scholar, Lin Chun proclaims China’s version as a socialist market economy: “the outcomes of globalisation are contingent on what is being globalised in whose interest and how it is transmitted globally and appropriated locally… The significance of the Chinese navigation, however, lies not in a compromise between the two conflicting systems but in the possibility of a market economy being moulded to satisfy needs as the end, via profits as the means.”viii

2) Universal rights to drugs and knowledge

The high cost of essential medical drugs reflects the large investments and substantial risk of research as well as the incredible profits of the pharmaceutical companies. Similar generic products can be supplied at much lower cost, but they are often unable to do so owing to copyrights laws. It is therefore interesting that Thailand presently battles on her own within the permitted international laws and regulations to ensure the supply of essential drugs at affordable cost to her citizens. She faces strong opposition from drug companies and not-so-subtle pressure from the US government. But she is now gaining support from concerned CSOs and other developing countries like Brazil. This issue deserves better exposure and support from the media. Furthermore, the debates should be extended to challenge the legality of systematic bio-patenting of plants as well as traditional herbs and medicine.

With the explosion of new knowledge and information, it has become very costly, particularly for the smaller economics, to acquire a great range of essential publications, especially in the field of the complex multidisciplinary cultural studies, when the majority have to depend on translations to fully understand and debate their contents. K S Jomo strongly criticised the WTO agreements on intellectual property rights, “Twenty years ago. Taiwan and Korea blatantly pirated academic books, which thus became available at fractions of their usual prices in the West, often on a cost plus basis. This was extremely important for the low-cost appropriation and dissemination of knowledge… This issue, of course, is of great concern because, firstly, it reduces technology or knowledge transfer and, secondly greatly increases the costs of such transfers”.ix Surprisingly, even in the progressive literature of developing economies, this issue has not been given the attention it deserves.

We must recognise, however, that there are basic differences between essential drugs and new knowledge from those such as cosmetic and design products as well as those of the media and entertainment industries. In fact, the WTO’s induced intellectual property rights and copyright issues are extremely complex and require much better cultural understanding and political sensitivity towards protecting the interest of various parties and obtaining affordable and equitable arrangements for the developing economies.

3) Land as a vital resource

With globalisation and the increasing pace of urbanisation, the phenomenon of the rapid explosion in major Asian cities is inevitable. At the same time, long-held accepted theories of Modernist planning are proving to be no longer relevant. I have identified with growing alarm that the spatial and environmental rights of the urban population are increasingly being neglected. The naïve idealism and top-down paternalistic ethics of the early modernist urbanism are carelessly discarded. Instead, capitalism’s profit-maximising attitude has become the favoured ruling principle in urban decisions. In an age when economics increasingly takes precedence over everything else, urban transformation and expansion are more often immediate and haphazard responses to the urgent demands of the market than they are part of the vital community-oriented planning process.x

Land is the most valuable asset of cities. Land policies are powerful tools for achieving a wide range of political, economic and social objectives. They should therefore be anchored with ethical concepts that are beneficial to the whole community. The rich and powerful, especially in rapidly developing countries, have amassed great wealth from land appreciation, increase in the plot ratio and density, and the conversion of rural land to urban usages. Investment in urban land is one of the most profitable but unproductive form of economic activity. For many property developers, rising land value is often the single most important factor in profitability, notwithstanding that the major contribution of the developers is to add values through their ability to construct projects in response to market demands.

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In the last few decades, millions of farmers in Asia have lost their land to urban use. Without necessary legal protection, land is acquired with no or token compensation, leading to unimaginable suffering and disastrous consequences. In many Asian cities, urban residents have not stayed immune to land seizures. Millions everywhere have been forcibly displaced from the older sections or squatter settlements often with minimum or no compensation. Adequate compensation for suitable land must be allocated to the displaced citizens. Security of tenure is essential to provide a sense of permanence and to foster the growth of the grass-roots community. Land ownership, however, is unnecessary as it can lead to abuse, such as subsequent sale of the ownership right. This issue is particularly relevant in socialist economies such as China and Vietnam.

The issue of land must clearly be analysed beyond the framework of legal status and rights of ownership. In my opinion, two vital issues must be addressed: firstly, the right of tenancy in both urban and rural areas must be recognised and safeguarded by law. Secondly, land should not be sold, but leased for a limited period, with a maximum of 99 years. This is in order for the state to repossess the land in the long term. We must recognise that land is a vital resource of the whole community. The rising values of urban land are caused by the demand and investment of the entire society. Notwithstanding the private ownership of land, the development potentials are regulated and granted by the authority. As a principle of equity and social justice, a substantial portion of the incremental values must be reclaimed for society, which has already been carried out in different ways in Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.


The world is now increasingly interconnected. Global issues such as global warming and sustainability, as well as poverty, diseases and provision of basic needs, affect everyone. But there is a great poverty of vision in tackling the multi-dimensional complexity of current critical issues. We must increase our awareness of the exploitative unequal trade arrangements, and the ‘profit-first’ orientation of multinational corporations and the impending global climate disaster. Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, is there for all to see but do we have the personal commitment and collective will to act?xi To meet the multiple complex challenges today, we urgently need ecological and transnational justice, fair trade and sustainable globalisation. To champion global justice within the ecological sustainability perspective means to redefine the strategy of development and the objective of wealth creation through a fundamental re-orientation towards social justice and enrichment in the quality of life for everyone, rather than striving for ever-increasing insatiable demand of consumerist products.

I wish to conclude with a qualified optimistic note. In the twenty-first century, the explosion of information communications technology (ICT) has generated new challenges and possibilities. New ideas, fresh ways of thinking and active involvement by academics and intellectuals and at the grass-roots level are essential. This must involve new strategies. The numerous fragmented CSOs and activists will need to explore and connect with each other on local, national and global levels and to focus on one issue, one alliance and one victory at a time. Their collective voices are now increasingly being heard loud and clear along the corridors of power. In the meantime, decision-makers must redefine and adjust their traditional ethical and development priorities in order to face and respond positively to the exciting changes and dynamic challenges of our time.

Lim is an independent theorist and writer on a wide range of subjects relating to architecture, urbanism and culture in Asia as well as on current issues relating to the postmodern, glocality and social justice.

i See Nancy Chng, Questioning Development in Southeast Asia (Singapore: Select Books, 1977).

ii “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, United Nations < http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html > (last accessed 29th January 2007)

iii See The Star Online: General Election 2008: Malaysia Decides 2008 < http://thestar.com.my/election/ > (last accessed 28 March 2008) and Taiwan Headlines: 2008 Taiwan Presidential Election < http://www.taiwanheadlines.gov.tw/mp.asp?mp=2 > (last accessed 28 March 2008).

iv See United Nations, “Human Development Index”, Human Development Report 2007/2008: Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World. (United Nations, 2007)

v Michael Moore (dir.) Sicko, 2007

vi See “Welfare Spending, Is It Just About Money?”, The Straits Times, 22 March 2008. < http://www.straitstimes.com/print/Free/Story/STIStory_219276.html > (last accessed 28 March 2008).

vii See “Suharto: A Legacy Divided”, The New Straits Times, 28 January 2008.

viii Lin Chun, The Transformation of Chinese Socialism. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006): 284.

ix K.S Jomos, “A World for All”, Abdul Rahman Embong, ed., Globalization, Culture and Inequalities in Honour of the late Ishak Shari (Selangor: Penerbut Universiti Kebangsaan): 37-51.

x See William S W Lim, “Introductory Notes”, Asian Alterity with special reference to Architecture and Urbanism through the Lens of Cultural Studies (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co, 2006): 36-39.

xi Al Gore (dir.), An Inconvenient Truth, 2006

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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